As the New Year Approaches, a Doctor Reflects on Body and Soul

Profile

By Cathy Shufro

Published August 29, 2007, issue of August 31, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As the Days of Awe approach, their themes — introspection, forgiveness and, of course, mortality — have undoubtedly started to swirl in many of our minds. But some of us, according to physician and author Sherwin B. Nuland, may have it a bit easier than others. Nuland says that the obligations of the High Holidays become less taxing as we age because older people tend to value shalom bayit — peace in the home — “in the sense of peace in the greater home.”

“It becomes much easier to repair old grudges,” Nuland said, in an interview with the Forward at his home in Hamden, a suburb of New Haven, Conn. “We realize that these grudges are really not of much consequence.” As we increasingly recognize that our lives are finite, he said, we feel motivated to achieve the ideal of reconciliation with others.

The features of this stage of life are of particular interest these days to Nuland, who recently published his tenth book, “The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being.” The book is a departure for the 76-year-old former surgeon, who also wrote the 1994 National Book Award-winning “How We Die,” which detailed the physiological processes that lead to death. Now, in a book more philosophical than medical, Nuland provides advice on “achieving a kind of harmony with the real circumstances of our lives.”

Some of Nuland’s latest thinking was influenced by another writing project, a biography of Moses Maimonides he wrote for the Nextbook/Schocken Jewish Encounters series. Nuland recognized that the teachings of the medieval physician-rabbi have affected how Jews view the body, even today. Maimonides helped disseminate religious and cultural traditions that place responsibility for health in the individual’s hands.

“The Jewish philosophy has always been that determinations about health and about longevity are not made in some celestial manner — that they are related to nature, to how a person has cared for his or her body during life,” Nuland said. “Christians were more likely to believe that disease occurred because of divine will,” perhaps in retribution for sinful living. “So their primary approach would be toward prayer. Whereas the Jewish approach would be toward activity and innovation” — trying any treatment that might work.

For their inclination to choose care over prayer, Jewish physicians owe a debt to the ancient Greeks. This Greek naturalism was adopted by Maimonides in the 12th century. While the Christians of Maimonides’s time valued the body primarily as a “container of the soul,” the Jews saw a sound body as the foundation for Jewish life; only in good health can one fully attend to God’s commandments. As the Psalms assert, “The dead cannot praise God” (Psalms 115:17).

A healthy body also comes in handy when one must flee antisemites. “I don’t think there’s anything more conducive to the search for good health than this basic insecurity,” Nuland said. “This feeling, though minimized in modern-day America and Western Europe, remains an underlying, almost unconscious sense.”

A related virtue of medicine was that it was a portable profession, and a social equalizer. The peregrinations of the Jews allowed the physicians among them to glean medical wisdom from all the cultures they touched, learning of an herb here, a therapy there.

The cosmopolitan knowledge of well-traveled Jews lent a mystique to Jewish doctors that survives even to this day. Nuland says people may also still have an outmoded (and unconscious) belief that Jews are the least likely doctors to call it quits. “There is still some vague traditional sense that Jews are less willing than other doctors to give up on medical means by turning to prayer early in the course of treatment,” he said.

Nuland believes that the narrowing of our horizons can teach us to focus on the richness of what is still possible, “achieving a kind of harmony with the real circumstances of our lives.” Thus, members of the oldest generation often feel moved to model good behavior for their children and grandchildren. “They feel they should become leaders,” he said, and taking part in organized religion can help them to achieve this. “Many people, including agnostics and atheists of my acquaintance, believe in the power of religion to motivate people for good.”

Preserving health becomes a social responsibility, because “we don’t live for ourselves. We live for others. We are the stars that other people steer by.” Still, even the most religious adherent to dictums for staying healthy can be struck down by a cancer that suddenly proliferates or a heart attack written in the genes. Our control is limited.

Given that we all must die, Nuland says that appreciating what Jews have given to the world can provide some solace. Knowing that history, he said, “helps us feel better about the continuity of the lives we have represented.” We can say to ourselves that, just as our grandparents, parents and teachers passed on this culture to us, “I, too, kept this culture alive.”

Cathy Shufro teaches writing at Yale University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.